MisterFischer, a fellow teacher and a reader of this blog, writes in offering his own ideas about how English class could change. I think he's going in the right direction, and I'm interested in thinking more about the "close reading of small passages." I should say that I'm not against "teaching reading in English class," and I 'd say his approach seems to me to still fall under that heading--but the idea that "teaching reading" isn't really possible, and so doesn't belong in English class, is close to what Harper Lee seems to suggest, and it's a provocative way to begin!
I'm wondering: what if we stopped teaching reading in English class? At some point in our pedagogical history, we started to pretend that we were college professors designing literature-based courses: American Literature; World Literature; European Literature. Why? Well, at some point (1910's?), college professors re-designed the HS English curriculum in their own image. The curriculum was designed for a select few (those who stayed in school after 14 instead of going to work) and, probably, for the purposes of weeding out the non-academic.
What if, instead, we went back (way back) to teaching rhetoric instead. That is, rather than using text as a springboard for pseudo-intellectual discussions (which are sometimes fun and enlightening, but often times vapid and used to hide the fact that the kids haven't really read the material), we use text to examine how text works and how to create text. We focus on close reading of small passages to help kids understand how text works--how are we manipulated and persuaded? how are we encouraged to like one character or one side of an argument? how do we use words to convince? to create a convincing character? Back to the Trivium! (or some modified version)
As you've written everywhere, kids need to be reading as much as possible. But evidence (anecdotal and otherwise) seems to suggest that we teachers aren't helping matters. Will kids read on their own if we don't assign it or make them do it? THAT's a great question. Personally, I think that they will, with a little help. They need help finding the right books, and then more and more and more right books. Kids need to know how to go about finding the right books--and this is NOT in our school's curriculum anywhere. We teachers are OK with this; we know about literary books and a little about other books. But this isn't what most kids want to read. We need 50 more Robin Brenners and 100 more school librarians...or we need to do some hard thinking about how we can learn enough about what's out there to help guide the kids to the right books.
Do kids need to get credit or points or rewards for reading books? Maybe. Maybe not. They certainly need time. They need blocks in the day for reading and time at night for reading. They need to stop filling their time with the books we're assigning them and taking more time reading books that are more appropriate for them to be reading. This isn't to say that we shouldn't be pushing them to read more and more difficult texts; we can certainly do that. But clearly trying to make 25 kids read the same difficult text at the exact same time at the exact same pace isn't working.
So, as I see it, we need to stop teaching--assigning--reading so that kids can begin to read. We need to start doing something else (rhetoric is my vote) so kids can start doing what we want them to do, what we know they need to do, which is to read.